Laogai in Tibet Conference: Thought Reform of a Different Kind
Bhuchung K. Tsering
June 13, 2012
The two-day Laogai in Tibet conference organized by the Laogai Research Foundation in Washington, D.C. was educative in every sense of the term. In addition to enlightening the people who came to attend the sessions, the events were eye-openers to the seven Tibetans, all but one of whom were Laogai (the dreaded Reform through Labor system established by China to exploit and oppress prisoners) survivors.
The first day’s session, held on June 8, 2012 at the United States Congress, saw the survivors testifying about their experience. They also had a taste of American democracy and congressional interest when two members of Congress not only came to express their support, but also took the opportunity to publicly voice their feeling that the Obama Administration was not proactive enough in taking up the Tibetan issue with China.
Following the weekend break during which the survivors had private interactions with some members of the Tibetan community and a taste of Virginia Beach, the second event was at the Laogai Research Foundation on June 11, 2012.
To me, the second-day’s session seemed to have more substance. It was held in a discussion-style format with the survivors putting their experience in the broader context of the dreaded Laogai system. Harry Wu, the head of the Laogai Research Foundation, who himself is a Laogai survivor, became their main debating partner of sort. It was clear that Harry wanted the Tibetans to really look at their experience not only from a victim-mentality mindset, but also to see that it is a part of China’s Laogai agenda. As the survivors made their comments, Harry intervened several times, sometimes appearing agitated, to provoke and encourage them to look more thoroughly at certain aspects of their experience.
One of the survivors talked about his daily routine in the prison: get up at 6 am work in a vegetable farm during the day, cell door closes at 6 pm followed by a study of newspapers for the next hour and a half, then free time till bed time at 9 pm. Harry asked him to expand on the political study session: what was done during that time? what was the format? Who was appointed to lead the discussions? The survivor responded to which Harry said these need to be highlighted as these are characteristics of the Thought Reform aspect of the Laogai system.
Another survivor related that he had been in the Laogai prison for four years from 1959 to 63 and thereafter was released but continued to have restrictions, Harry was calculating something on a paper as he prodded the survivor on the aspects of his experience outside of the prison. He then said that these were very much part of the Laogai framework and that he should actually say that he was part of the Laogai system for 22 years (the four years in prison and the 18 years outside of it). There was a moment of cultural difference here as the survivor mentioned that other Tibetans may not agree that his period outside of the prison was Laogai because he could go home at night. But Harry emphasized that this external impression cannot hide the insidious nature of life during the day.
The survivors were also encouraged to dwell deeply into products made or produced in prison and what would be the consequences if the quota was not met. An intense discussion took place on the issue of continued usage of prisoners in the production work after the completion of their sentences. The survivors referred to such a system in their respective prisons. Harry said this is the “job placement personnel” system, which is again a characteristic of the Laogai system.
On the second day’s session, I was asked to make some remarks during which I made two points. First, I said the experience related by the Tibetan survivors were symbolic of the commonality in the experience of people who have suffered under the Chinese Communist authorities’ brutal Laogai system. Whether it was Tibetans, Chinese, Uyghurs, Mongols or others, they have suffered this in a similar way, whether during the Cultural Revolution or before or after that period. I said this was an opportunity for the Tibetan survivors to put their experience in perspective, to go beyond their individual experience to show how these fit with the broader Chinese Laogai agenda. The second point I made was that the survivors should make the case to the international community on why the Tibetan case is different despite this commonality in experience. I referred to some Sinologists who tend to look at the Tibetan case from a Chinese perspective and tend to undermine the Tibetans saying their experience is no different from those of the Chinese. I suggested that the case should be made in terms of difference in the background and the cause for their incarcerations, which had political, racial, ethnic, cultural, etc. dimensions.
The seven participants in the conference were Ms. Ghang Lhamo, Mrs. Ngawang Sangdrol , Mr. Tubten Khetsun, Mr. Dolkar Kyab, Mr. Jampa Monlam, Mr. Lukar Sham, and Mr. Tsewang Dhondup. Their biography can be found on the website of the Laogai Research Foundation, which also intends to post the text of their testimony.
In Western society, there is the tradition of the wife assuming her husband’s last name upon marriage, but this is seeing a change now. More women not only keep their own name after marriage, but even make a point about it. For example, in today’s (June 10, 2012) New York Times, the section that announces marriages had more than half a dozen entries that said one of the following:
- “The bride, 31, is keeping her name.”
- “Dr. Gray, 31, is keeping her name.”
- “The bride will use her name professionally.”
- “Ms.Ramirez, 34, will keep her name.”
Reflecting the new reality, one entry even had the following: ‘The bride, 29, will take her husband’s name,” as if that action had to be emphasized.
In any case, this made me think of the situation in our community. Although the wife would and could take the family name (or for that matter the husband, too, could take the family name of his wife), there never used to be a tradition of the wife taking her husband’s last name. This could be because in our tradition the husband’s last name is not necessarily his family name.
But with wives now increasingly adopting the last name of her husband there is an impact in the naming tradition. Traditionally, not just Tibetans, but communities along the Himalayas who share the broader Tibet-inspired culture, have a way of providing names to individuals that can almost safely enable one to know the gender, without seeing the person.
There are some names that are distinctly masculine or feminine irrespective of how they are used. This category includes my own first name, Bhuchung, Khedup, Tenpa, Topgyal, Gonpo, or Gyaltsen, (all male names); Tsomo, Dolma, Dolkar, Chodon, Norzin, Tsamchoe, Wangmo, or Sangmo (all female names).
Then there are names that can signify a specific gender depending on whether they are the first name or the last name. Pema used to be definitely female if it is the last name but can be both if it is the first name. Whereas, Wangdu used to be a male if it appears as the last name. Having said that there are excepts: in the Tibetan region of Amdo males also have some “female names” like Dolma or Dolkar.
With closer interaction with other societies, particularly Western, wives in our society, too, are adopting the last names of their husbands. In the absence of no clear distinction between family names and last names, this development is slowly making it impossible for one to know the gender of the individual merely through the names.
Given this trend, I will not be too surprised if in the future, a woman responds to the name, “Bhuchung.”